Saturday, December 17, 2016

Safe Spaces

I have the privilege of being able to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school on Friday mornings. I have done so for most of the years that my three children have attended Centennial Elementary in Altoona, Iowa(my older two children are now in middle school and high school).

I often find that as I enter the building, a palpable sense of calm washes over me. I can feel my heart rate slowing and my stress dissipating as I sign in to the office and am so kindly greeted by staff as I walk down to the second grade classroom where I will work with students and make copies and whatever is needed for the morning. 

I have long thought that the reason that I love Friday mornings so much is that I get to work with children. I am a mother and a pediatric nurse so you may have already realized my love for children. However, I have been realizing lately that my love for Friday mornings and this school goes so much deeper than just the privilege of getting to work with a know a classroom of children. I love Friday mornings because Centennial Elementary is a safe space for all who enter the walls of this institution that is far more than just a place of education. It is a place of safety and love for all who enter. I feel insulated from the volatile outside world the minute that I walk inside these doors.

There has been much talk of safe spaces lately. With a divisive political culture, an election that nearly brought many of us to our knees and hate crimes on the rise, many of us have been searching for safe spaces-- family and friends who understand us, the comfort of home, building communities of likeminded people. Some are mocked and deemed weak when they talk of such a need for a place of safety, a place to be themselves without repercussions.

On Friday mornings when I walk inside the brick walls of the elementary school that I once attended myself, I see the beauty of places where children(and adults) are free to be themselves. The staff here, all of them from the principal to the janitor, have made a concerted effort to make this space a place where students can come and learn and be loved on, a place to be uniquely themselves.

As I work with students, I often notice the few in torn and dirty clothing and the few with eyes that always hold sadness. As a public health nurse in this community, I know that not all of these children will have a safe place at home. However, when they are here they are safe and loved.

Over the course of the each school year I get to witness little miracles in these hallowed walls. I've watched perpetually quiet children become animated and full of spoken thoughts. I've watched as the school organized clothing and gifts each year for every student whose family cannot afford to provide a comfortable Christmas for their family(and do so without fanfare, without asking for thanks). I've watched children that moved from another school come to Centennial very behind on educational benchmarks and, with the help of staff, learn so much in one year that the next year they easily keep up with their peers. There are many seen and unseen miracles in this school each year(and in schools around the world).

I know that this school isn't perfect. No school is. However, I've seen with my own eyes the beauty of what can happen when people come together in love and create a space where people can blossom. I've seen the beauty of what could've been a cold, educational institution instead becoming a haven for all. It is a beautiful thing. 

I will never be able to verbalize my gratitude for the staff that made this haven for my children and the other students here. I cannot imagine the work that this takes each and every day. I witness a tiny bit of that effort on my Friday mornings and it takes my breath away.

There is so much hate in the world right now, but there is so much light too. Centennial Elementary is a light in my world and in the world of many. I will forever be grateful.

Now, if only we could somehow expand the walls of this small, suburban school to somehow include us all. What a lovely world that would be. 


  1. Beautiful. So beautiful. We need this more than ever.
    Carol Cassara

  2. I want to channel your attitude. My boys go to urban schools and I do not feel the sense of calm you describe. I too volunteer in the elementary and middle schools and hope that it helps...but it feels like a long trek

    1. I'm so sorry for your experience, Anna.

  3. I love to think of schools as safe places in a world that is often volatile and unpredictable and I believe for the most part they are. How wonderful that you volunteer each week! I do fantasize about being a teacher. On school vacations and snow days, that is. LOL. I have much admiration and respect for those who keep our schools a safe place and for volunteers who give of their time and talents.

    1. I'm very lucky and privileged to volunteer, Molly!